Selecting an Instrument

Selecting a new instrument can be challenging, frustrating, and exhausting for any musician since it involves trying out many different instruments in an attempt to narrow the field down to just one or two.

Some people (usually teachers, who frequently try out instruments for their students) are often able to select the most suitable instrument(s) quickly out of dozens or more, while other musicians become exhausted before they get through the first round.

For those who find a try out session frustrating, here are some tips on how to address this challenge.

The key to the beginning stage of a successful try out session is judging the sound quality within a limited frequency range.  This can be done by comparing a few bars or a scale (4 notes on one slurred bow) on only the two upper or lower strings rather than on all of the strings at once.  This way you can judge a large number of instruments within a period of time that your memory can comfortably accommodate.  If you do not like the sound on the two strings you play, eliminate that instrument; it does not matter how good the other two strings sound. Within a relatively short time, you will have narrowed the field considerably, and will still have enough energy to examine the few finalists more thoroughly. When selecting a new instrument, be aware that your decision could be influenced by the sound and feel of the instrument you are used to playing.  Make sure you don't use the old instrument as a measuring stick (unless it's a fine sounding Strad).  Some aspects that feel uncomfortable on the new instrument-- the neck thickness, string height, chinrest, shoulder rest, etc--can be adjusted.

For an efficient evaluation, divide the properties of the instrument into four categories: sound, playability, aesthetics and resale value.

Sound

  • Quality of sound
  • Responsiveness
  • Evenness across strings
  • Evenness within the string

Test the acoustics of the room using a familiar instrument and the trial instruments.  If a try-out session is done in a hall, play the instruments solo and also with a group of musicians to judge the projection of that instrument in relation to a group.

Playability

Do not eliminate an instrument just because one or more of the following conditions appears problematic; these can be corrected or adjusted by a violinmaker:

  • String height at the center and end of the fingerboard
  • Neck shape
  • Correct curve of neck (at thumb rest in 4th position)
  • Correct curve of neck (at scroll end)
  • Margin of fingerboard edge beyond treble string
  • Margin for bow to play treble string before touching neighboring string or C-bout

Aesthetics

This is a matter of personal preference.

Resale Value

Consult with a trusted expert.Because the price of an instrument is not merely determined by its sound quality, you should play and judge all the instruments in your general price range before looking at their individual prices. Your violinmaker should provide you with an insurance appraisal at the time of purchase.  If one is not provided, ask for it. (For more information, see Insurance.)

Further Suggestions

Try to avoid the following, which can make a tryout session much more tedious:

  • Attempting to find the right instrument in the first round by considering all aspects simultaneously
  • Comparing instruments played at one shop with others played at a different shop (different locations will have different acoustics)
  • Relying on memory when comparing different instruments at separate times
  • Focusing on your technique or playing perfectly in tune, instead of concentrating on the sound and tone